Walter Schnaff's Adventure by Guy de Maupassant
Ever since he entered France with the invading army Walter Schnaffs had
considered himself the most unfortunate of men. He was large, had
difficulty in walking, was short of breath and suffered frightfully with
his feet, which were very flat and very fat. But he was a peaceful,
benevolent man, not warlike or sanguinary, the father of four children
whom he adored, and married to a little blonde whose little tendernesses,
attentions and kisses he recalled with despair every evening. He liked to
rise late and retire early, to eat good things in a leisurely manner and
to drink beer in the saloon. He reflected, besides, that all that is
sweet in existence vanishes with life, and he maintained in his heart a
fearful hatred, instinctive as well as logical, for cannon, rifles,
revolvers and swords, but especially for bayonets, feeling that he was
unable to dodge this dangerous weapon rapidly enough to protect his big
And when night fell and he lay on the ground, wrapped in his cape beside
his comrades who were snoring, he thought long and deeply about those he
had left behind and of the dangers in his path. "If he were killed what
would become of the little ones? Who would provide for them and bring
them up?" Just at present they were not rich, although he had borrowed
when he left so as to leave them some money. And Walter Schnaffs wept
when he thought of all this.
At the beginning of a battle his legs became so weak that he would have
fallen if he had not reflected that the entire army would pass over his
body. The whistling of the bullets gave him gooseflesh.
For months he had lived thus in terror and anguish.
His company was marching on Normandy, and one day he was sent to
reconnoitre with a small detachment, simply to explore a portion of the
territory and to return at once. All seemed quiet in the country; nothing
indicated an armed resistance.
But as the Prussians were quietly descending into a little valley
traversed by deep ravines a sharp fusillade made them halt suddenly,
killing twenty of their men, and a company of sharpshooters, suddenly
emerging from a little wood as large as your hand, darted forward with
bayonets at the end of their rifles.
Walter Schnaffs remained motionless at first, so surprised and bewildered
that he did not even think of making his escape. Then he was seized with
a wild desire to run away, but he remembered at once that he ran like a
tortoise compared with those thin Frenchmen, who came bounding along like
a lot of goats. Perceiving a large ditch full of brushwood covered with
dead leaves about six paces in front of him, he sprang into it with both
feet together, without stopping to think of its depth, just as one jumps
from a bridge into the river.
He fell like an arrow through a thick layer of vines and thorny brambles
that tore his face and hands and landed heavily in a sitting posture on a
bed of stones. Raising his eyes, he saw the sky through the hole he had
made in falling through. This aperture might betray him, and he crawled
along carefully on hands and knees at the bottom of this ditch beneath
the covering of interlacing branches, going as fast as he could and
getting away from the scene of the skirmish. Presently he stopped and sat
down, crouched like a hare amid the tall dry grass.
He heard firing and cries and groans going on for some time. Then the
noise of fighting grew fainter and ceased. All was quiet and silent.
Suddenly something stirred, beside him. He was frightfully startled. It
was a little bird which had perched on a branch and was moving the dead
leaves. For almost an hour Walter Schnaffs' heart beat loud and rapidly.
Night fell, filling the ravine with its shadows. The soldier began to
think. What was he to do? What was to become of him? Should he rejoin the
army? But how? By what road? And he began over again the horrible life of
anguish, of terror, of fatigue and suffering that he had led since the
commencement of the war. No! He no longer had the courage! He would not
have the energy necessary to endure long marches and to face the dangers
to which one was exposed at every moment.
But what should he do? He could not stay in this ravine in concealment
until the end of hostilities. No, indeed! If it were not for having to
eat, this prospect would not have daunted him greatly. But he had to eat,
to eat every day.
And here he was, alone, armed and in uniform, on the enemy's territory,
far from those who would protect him. A shiver ran over him.
All at once he thought: "If I were only a prisoner!" And his heart
quivered with a longing, an intense desire to be taken prisoner by the
French. A prisoner, he would be saved, fed, housed, sheltered from
bullets and swords, without any apprehension whatever, in a good,
well-kept prison. A prisoner! What a dream:
His resolution was formed at once.
"I will constitute myself a prisoner."
He rose, determined to put this plan into execution without a moment's
delay. But he stood motionless, suddenly a prey to disturbing reflections
and fresh terrors.
Where would he make himself a prisoner and how? In What direction? And
frightful pictures, pictures of death came into his mind.
He would run terrible danger in venturing alone through the country with
his pointed helmet.
Supposing he should meet some peasants. These peasants seeing a Prussian
who had lost his way, an unprotected Prussian, would kill him as if he
were a stray dog! They would murder him with their forks, their picks,
their scythes and their shovels. They would make a stew of him, a pie,
with the frenzy of exasperated, conquered enemies.
If he should meet the sharpshooters! These sharpshooters, madmen without
law or discipline, would shoot him just for amusement to pass an hour; it
would make them laugh to see his head. And he fancied he was already
leaning against a wall in-front of four rifles whose little black
apertures seemed to be gazing at him.
Supposing he should meet the French army itself. The vanguard would take
him for a scout, for some bold and sly trooper who had set off alone to
reconnoitre, and they would fire at him. And he could already hear, in
imagination, the irregular shots of soldiers lying in the brush, while he
himself, standing in the middle of the field, was sinking to the earth,
riddled like a sieve with bullets which he felt piercing his flesh.
He sat down again in despair. His situation seemed hopeless.
It was quite a dark, black and silent night. He no longer budged,
trembling at all the slight and unfamiliar sounds that occur at night.
The sound of a rabbit crouching at the edge of his burrow almost made him
run. The cry of an owl caused him positive anguish, giving him a nervous
shock that pained like a wound. He opened his big eyes as wide as
possible to try and see through the darkness, and he imagined every
moment that he heard someone walking close beside him.
After interminable hours in which he suffered the tortures of the damned,
he noticed through his leafy cover that the sky was becoming bright. He
at once felt an intense relief. His limbs stretched out, suddenly
relaxed, his heart quieted down, his eyes closed; he fell asleep.
When he awoke the sun appeared to be almost at the meridian. It must be
noon. No sound disturbed the gloomy silence. Walter Schnaffs noticed that
he was exceedingly hungry.
He yawned, his mouth watering at the thought of sausage, the good sausage
the soldiers have, and he felt a gnawing at his stomach.
He rose from the ground, walked a few steps, found that his legs were
weak and sat down to reflect. For two or three hours he again considered
the pros and cons, changing his mind every moment, baffled, unhappy, torn
by the most conflicting motives.
Finally he had an idea that seemed logical and practical. It was to watch
for a villager passing by alone, unarmed and with no dangerous tools of
his trade, and to run to him and give himself up, making him understand
that he was surrendering.
He took off his helmet, the point of which might betray him, and put his
head out of his hiding place with the utmost caution.
No solitary pedestrian could be perceived on the horizon. Yonder, to the
right, smoke rose from the chimney of a little village, smoke from
kitchen fires! And yonder, to the left, he saw at the end of an avenue of
trees a large turreted chateau. He waited till evening, suffering
frightfully from hunger, seeing nothing but flights of crows, hearing
nothing but the silent expostulation of his empty stomach.
And darkness once more fell on him.
He stretched himself out in his retreat and slept a feverish sleep,
haunted by nightmares, the sleep of a starving man.
Dawn again broke above his head and he began to make his observations.
But the landscape was deserted as on the previous day, and a new fear
came into Walter Schnaffs' mind—the fear of death by hunger! He
pictured himself lying at full length on his back at the bottom of his
hiding place, with his two eyes closed, and animals, little creatures of
all kinds, approached and began to feed on his dead body, attacking it
all over at once, gliding beneath his clothing to bite his cold flesh,
and a big crow pecked out his eyes with its sharp beak.
He almost became crazy, thinking he was going to faint and would not be
able to walk. And he was just preparing to rush off to the village,
determined to dare anything, to brave everything, when he perceived three
peasants walking to the fields with their forks across their shoulders,
and he dived back into his hiding place.
But as soon as it grew dark he slowly emerged from the ditch and started
off, stooping and fearful, with beating heart, towards the distant
chateau, preferring to go there rather than to the village, which seemed
to him as formidable as a den of tigers.
The lower windows were brilliantly lighted. One of them was open and from
it escaped a strong odor of roast meat, an odor which suddenly penetrated
to the olfactories and to the stomach of Walter Schnaffs, tickling his
nerves, making him breathe quickly, attracting him irresistibly and
inspiring his heart with the boldness of desperation.
And abruptly, without reflection, he placed himself, helmet on head, in
front of the window.
Eight servants were at dinner around a large table. But suddenly one of
the maids sat there, her mouth agape, her eyes fixed and letting fall her
glass. They all followed the direction of her gaze.
They saw the enemy!
Good God! The Prussians were attacking the chateau!
There was a shriek, only one shriek made up of eight shrieks uttered in
eight different keys, a terrific screaming of terror, then a tumultuous
rising from their seats, a jostling, a scrimmage and a wild rush to the
door at the farther end. Chairs fell over, the men knocked the women down
and walked over them. In two seconds the room was empty, deserted, and
the table, covered with eatables, stood in front of Walter Schnaffs, lost
in amazement and still standing at the window.
After some moments of hesitation he climbed in at the window and
approached the table. His fierce hunger caused him to tremble as if he
were in a fever, but fear still held him back, numbed him. He listened.
The entire house seemed to shudder. Doors closed, quick steps ran along
the floor above. The uneasy Prussian listened eagerly to these confused
sounds. Then he heard dull sounds, as though bodies were falling to the
ground at the foot of the walls, human beings jumping from the first
Then all motion, all disturbance ceased, and the great chateau became as
silent as the grave.
Walter Schnaffs sat down before a clean plate and began to eat. He took
great mouthfuls, as if he feared he might be interrupted before he had
swallowed enough. He shovelled the food into his mouth, open like a trap,
with both hands, and chunks of food went into his stomach, swelling out
his throat as it passed down. Now and then he stopped, almost ready to
burst like a stopped-up pipe. Then he would take the cider jug and wash
down his esophagus as one washes out a clogged rain pipe.
He emptied all the plates, all the dishes and all the bottles. Then,
intoxicated with drink and food, besotted, red in the face, shaken by
hiccoughs, his mind clouded and his speech thick, he unbuttoned his
uniform in order to breathe or he could not have taken a step. His eyes
closed, his mind became torpid; he leaned his heavy forehead on his
folded arms on the table and gradually lost all consciousness of things
The last quarter of the moon above the trees in the park shed a faint
light on the landscape. It was the chill hour that precedes the dawn.
Numerous silent shadows glided among the trees and occasionally a blade
of steel gleamed in the shadow as a ray of moonlight struck it.
The quiet chateau stood there in dark outline. Only two windows were
still lighted up on the ground floor.
Suddenly a voice thundered:
"Forward! nom d'un nom! To the breach, my lads!"
And in an instant the doors, shutters and window panes fell in beneath a
wave of men who rushed in, breaking, destroying everything, and took the
house by storm. In a moment fifty soldiers, armed to the teeth, bounded
into the kitchen, where Walter Schnaffs was peacefully sleeping, and
placing to his breast fifty loaded rifles, they overturned him, rolled
him on the floor, seized him and tied his head and feet together.
He gasped in amazement, too besotted to understand, perplexed, bruised
and wild with fear.
Suddenly a big soldier, covered with gold lace, put his foot on his
"You are my prisoner. Surrender!"
The Prussian heard only the one word "prisoner" and he sighed, "Ya, ya,
He was raised from the floor, tied in a chair and examined with lively
curiosity by his victors, who were blowing like whales. Several of them
sat down, done up with excitement and fatigue.
He smiled, actually smiled, secure now that he was at last a prisoner.
Another officer came into the room and said:
"Colonel, the enemy has escaped; several seem to have been wounded. We
are in possession."
The big officer, who was wiping his forehead, exclaimed: "Victory!"
And he wrote in a little business memorandum book which he took from his
"After a desperate encounter the Prussians were obliged to beat a
retreat, carrying with them their dead and wounded, the number of whom is
estimated at fifty men. Several were taken prisoners."
The young officer inquired:
"What steps shall I take, colonel?"
"We will retire in good order," replied the colonel, "to avoid having to
return and make another attack with artillery and a larger force of men."
And he gave the command to set out.
The column drew up in line in the darkness beneath the walls of the
chateau and filed out, a guard of six soldiers with revolvers in their
hands surrounding Walter Schnaffs, who was firmly bound.
Scouts were sent ahead to reconnoitre. They advanced cautiously, halting
from time to time.
At daybreak they arrived at the district of La Roche-Oysel, whose
national guard had accomplished this feat of arms.
The uneasy and excited inhabitants were expecting them. When they saw the
prisoner's helmet tremendous shouts arose. The women raised their 10 arms
in wonder, the old people wept. An old grandfather threw his crutch at
the Prussian and struck the nose of one of their own defenders.
The colonel roared:
"See that the prisoner is secure!"
At length they reached the town hall. The prison was opened and Walter
Schnaffs, freed from his bonds, cast into it. Two hundred armed men
mounted guard outside the building.
Then, in spite of the indigestion that had been troubling him for some
time, the Prussian, wild with joy, began to dance about, to dance
frantically, throwing out his arms and legs and uttering wild shouts
until he fell down exhausted beside the wall.
He was a prisoner-saved!
That was how the Chateau de Charnpignet was taken from the enemy after
only six hours of occupation.
Colonel Ratier, a cloth merchant, who had led the assault at the head of
a body of the national guard of La Roche-Oysel, was decorated with an